Force for the good

A recent MoD move has made it easier for civilian innovators and designers to help develop equipment for UK troops, says Helen Almey

To ensure that UK armed forces have the best equipment to keep them one step ahead of the enemy, the defence sector has developed some of the most advanced and innovative engineering.

Design and construction of the new Astute Class submarine has been arguably the most challenging engineering project in the UK, involving the production of over 7,000 drawings covering 10,000 separate designs and engineering requirements.

The RAF has new squadrons of the elegant Typhoon, fusing the work of aerospace engineers, fluid dynamists, data integrators, sensors and human factors — almost every field of engineering is touched on in delivering this very potent machine. The Army, too, has seen enormous contributions from innovative engineering to protect our forces deployed on operation — strengthening their vehicles, accommodation and personal equipment.

But while more than £10bn worth of new equipment has been delivered to the forces in the last three years, the MoD has become concerned that some engineers perceived it as an impenetrable organisation not open to new businesses. That is why the MoD has made it easier for innovators to get involved and ensure we are benefitting fully from the best engineering and technical innovation the UK can offer.

The Centre for Defence Enterprise was opened this May at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire. It aims initially to bring inventors directly into contact with the the MoD, providing a dedicated team on-site to talk to them about their innovation. It offers a range of advice, assistance and, importantly, research funding. An online application process for proposals at allows rapid assessment and feedback. Even offers of contract from this e-business portal can happen in as little as 15 working days.

In 2006, the publication of the Defence Technology Strategy clearly stated the MoD’s R&D intent. This was, in some ways, revolutionary as previous attempts at such a comprehensive strategy were always classified. Now everyone can see the scope and depth of the MoD’s technology ambition. Building on this, the Defence Technology Plan will be published at the end of the year. This will give innovators the most informed view ever of the MoD’s thinking, and the level of investment we are contemplating.

Couple this access to our future requirements with the extensive investment made each year — around £500m in research, a further £2bn in development and, overall, some £16bn a year spent on supplying the Armed Forces — and we believe there are lucrative financial prospects for the budding investor and entrepreneur. We are looking for investors to back those ideas that have dual civilian and military use.

The principles applied to many of the engineering issues raised by defence are applicable to the civil sector. The MoD can provide the initial funding and will share the costs of maturing technology. We are a generous benefactor, as the Intellectual Property of work funded by the MoD stays with the contractor. The MoD only seeks user rights for defence and not other commercialisation — that is something for innovators and their investment backers. We believe modest investment in future technology could pay future dividends.

Clearly, sharing the cost of developing advanced engineering is an advantage to the MoD. We can use our extensive, but finite, resources to cover a wider scope of technologies and engineering projects. Our focus remains to deliver battle-winning equipment to the frontline, but there is scope for engineers to advance their ideas into the civil sector at the same time. We think the development of ideas with a customer already secured should be attractive to engineers, investors and entrepreneurs to incubate new businesses.

After only a few months the centre is attracting full houses to its regular seminars and has a flow of exciting proposals coming in, and contracts going out. So far the process of opening up the MoD appears to be working.

The application of this model to other areas is something that those other sectors will have to analyse. We think the strength comes from the innovative engineers and technologists who are out there but have never thought of working with defence. The MoD needs to be accessible but also open in showing just what the opportunities are — and for engineering they are almost endless.

Dr Helen Almey is head of the MoD’s Centre for Defence Enterprise